food banks- britain's hungry and hidden

Antonia and her partner Sergio work to feed their two children but struggle to make ends meet and have used emergency food aid in the past year.

This week it was announced that over one million people received help from UK Food banks during the last year. Why then are most news articles illustrated by rows of tins or tables laid with statistics, rather than people?

In North America and on mainland Europe, food banks are old news but in the UK figures show they have soared in six years from 25,000 to over one million people receiving a three day supply according to Trussell trust figures. Others contest this figure and say its only half a million people. (If you want to crunch the numbers I have a note at the bottom). Of those hundreds of thousands of people, next to nil appear in the press.  I set aside a month to follow the food bank supply lines to the homes of hungry Britons in 21st century Britain before the General Election. 

Depending on the spin, food banks represent a government’s failure or the success of civic society or both. Working on this story felt more difficult than on assignments in politically-charged Tibet or Zimbabwe. In both I received a warm welcome and a willingness from participants despite arguably greater risks to their freedom. People's trust acts as a catalyst for trustworthy reporting especially on politically sensitive stories. I was very aware of the trust they gave me and worked hard to ensure they remained safe once I had jumped on a plane and flown away.  What about back home In the UK?  For food bank clients the story remains hidden for the shame of being seen.

In London, I criss-crossed the capital from one cancellation to the next. With each knock-back I considered cutting my losses. I could understand their reluctance- an outsider asking people to share their struggle in the national media. I was trying to counter the stigma but it is a hard sell. In Scotland, one man was heckled by a passing driver as he was leaving a food bank- "You dirty, scrounging, junkie bastard!". That was in public, imagine the abuse he could receive online.

Of those we managed to arrange, many cancelled. Some silently ignored texts and phone calls, others giving reasons to remain anonymous and prevent the shame of their family or friends or workmates finding out. I was disappointed but not surprised. The people I did meet were struck hard by circumstances (unemployment, bereavement, illness) and were embarrassed to ask for help. 

The Trussell trust, the UK’s largest food bank network, helped with access. They said cancellations were par for the course. The press request a case study, they line someone up, they cancel. These food banks run as autonomous entities so it is up to the food bank managers to approach people who might want to share their stories.

Working this way requires determination to walk the tight rope of accuracy and access. Its frustrating, its tiring and for me it is financially risky because it is self-funded. In the end it is important to share personal stories because tins of beans, like statistics, don't bleed. 

I am thankful for those who were bold enough to share their stories. 

See the full set of images on Panos Pictures.

*A note on figures.  Following the announcement of 1.1 million people,  a critique of the figures by Full Fact said this is not 1.1 million people but 1.1 million visits. The Trust say 'visits' isn't accurate and it is best reported as 'over a million people received three days 'emergency food', and had openly admitted that these are not unique users. Full Fact estimate that total individuals is likely to be only 500,000 people or so, based on Trussell trust data. Full Fact also point out (as has been done many times) that supply does not mean new demand. There may have been people in need of emergency food in the past who wouldn’t have shown up in the Trust’s figures.  People may have hungry before but we just hadn't noticed. Trussell Trust figures show that demand is outstripping supply and has been for some years.  Numbers of new food banks, they say, don't explain the much greater increase in food bank use. Full Fact link to a helpful British Medical Journal article that shows "the increase in use and number of food banks is associated with spending cuts, benefit sanctions and unemployment". Full Fact also point out that the Trussell Trust are one of many providers and provide only a third of emergency food aid. The problem looks far larger than the one million people found in this new report. They also conclude "Data from the Trussell Trust may be the best evidence we have but reporting needs to be clearer. 

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